Posts Categorized: Review

Regency romance review: ‘Two Corinthians’ by Carola Dunn

December 4, 2015 Review 0

I love a good Regency romance, but I find it difficult to find any that aren’t dreadfully silly, and historically inaccurate to boot. I don’t expect every last detail to be perfect, but some things are terribly easy to check, like correct forms of address for the aristocracy, and it’s a great irritant when the author hasn’t even bothered. However, I have no such complaints here. There is a great deal of detail of clothing, and the language is riddled with contemporary cant, but it all felt very authentic. And while there is an outbreak of silliness at the end, it was forgivable.

The two Corinthians (men about town) of the title are George Winterbourne and Bertram Pomeroy. Bertram having lost the love of his life to George’s brother, is urged by his ailing father to marry soon. The suggestion is the elder Miss Sutton, Claire, eccentric and spinsterish at twenty eight, but suitable. George, meanwhile, becomes entangled with Claire and her lively younger sister, Lizzie, by chance, and enters into a pact with Lizzie: he will pretend to woo her to stop her dragonish mother from berating her.

So George is pretending to court Lizzie and Bertram is reluctantly courting Claire, and… well, we can see where this is going, can’t we? But even if the resolution is predictable, that’s not a fault in a book like this. It’s more about the journey than the destination, and here the journey is entertaining and unfolds gently and rather sweetly, with good behaviour on all sides.

There’s not much action, so those looking for highwaymen or pirates or spies should move swiftly on. Nor are there any outbreaks of uncontrollable lust. If you like Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer, then this book is just the ticket. A pleasant, gentle read. Four stars.

A footnote: I didn’t realise it, but this book is actually a sequel to Miss Hartwell’s Dilemma. It made things a little confusing early on as the author skated rapidly over the backstory, but I soon got the hang of it. However, it’s probably a more enjoyable read if approached in the correct order.

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Mystery review: ‘The Incident at Fives Castle’ by Clara Benson

December 1, 2015 Review 0

The fifth twenties murder mystery in the Angela Marchmont series, this time set in a Scottish castle at Hogmanay, where a murder takes place while the occupants are cut off by snow. And wouldn’t you know it, but Angela is the one to discover the body (again).

This one was great fun. Spies, a missing scientist, hidden documents, secret meetings and lots of rushing about in the snow. And a whole ocean full of red herrings. I didn’t guess this one at all, but it didn’t matter, it was great fun watching the story unfold, Angela beetle about being helpful and Freddy get his nose (or his ear!) into everything. Since the American Ambassador was one of those present, we also learned a little bit more about Angela’s past, which, far from being illuminating, actually makes her even more mysterious. I’d love to know more about the not-spoken-of Mr Marchmont. I’d begun to think he was just a convenient fiction, but seemingly not.

Living in Scotland myself gives me the opportunity to chuckle at the author’s mistakes. It’s obvious Clara Benson never spent a Hogmanay in the Highlands. Even supposing Angela’s Bentley managed to make the border by mid-afternoon (a feat which would be quite impressive even today, with reliable cars and motorways, unless she lived a long way north already), its arrival at the castle in the Cairngorms before it was fully dark would be nothing short of miraculous. The sun sets at 3pm at that time of year, and the castle would be several hours’ drive north of the border. But it really doesn’t matter, and it doesn’t impact the plot at all.

The charm of these books is in the period setting, and the lives of the wealthy upper classes, very reminiscent of vintage Agatha Christie. There must be an army of servants, both indoor and outdoor, but they rarely get a mention, apart from Angela’s chauffeur and lady’s maid, and one or two references to the ‘men’ deployed to remove a fallen tree and clear snow. And it was wonderful how, in the midst of murder, political disaster and general mayhem, everyone still felt it necessary to dress for dinner and sit around in the drawing room making polite conversation about the weather. It reminded me of (I think) Murder on the Orient Express where one character is looking for some of the others and is told: it’s four o’clock, naturally the English passengers are all in the restaurant car having tea.

A light but very enjoyable read. A good four stars.

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Fiction review: ‘The Beginner’s Goodbye’ by Anne Tyler

November 29, 2015 Review 0

Aaron is a man with a withered arm and leg after a childhood illness. His family and friends fuss around him, but he won’t be cosseted, and has become a curmudgeonly adult, grumpy at everyone and unable to interact sociably with the world. He works in the family’s small publishing business, a vanity press which also publishes a series of how-to books, The Beginner’s (whatever). Aaron marries a woman just as socially inept as he is, and when she dies suddenly, he begins to encounter her ghost. The plot, such as it is, involves Aaron coming to terms with Dorothy’s death, and beginning to move on with his life (hence the title).

I found this book a very easy read. There’s quite a bit of humour, and, as something of a curmudgeon myself, I very much enjoyed Aaron’s snappishness and passive resistance. With his house damaged by a fallen tree (which also killed his wife), he simply continues to live in the undamaged part until the rain collapses the roof and forces him out. Even then, he has to be pushed into getting things fixed. To say the story is flimsy would be a gross understatement – there really isn’t any plot to speak of, the whole premise is Aaron’s quirky character – but it still flowed along quite gently to its resolution.

An odd sort of book, very readable and entertaining, but it left me feeling vaguely unsatisfied. Like meringue, it looks and tastes good, but isn’t very substantial. Still, I enjoyed it as a lightweight, very quick read (I read it from cover to cover during a single short-haul flight). Four stars.

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Mystery review: ‘The Riddle at Gipsy’s Mile’ by Clara Benson

November 16, 2015 Review 0

This is the fourth book in the Angela Marchmont series of Christie-esque murder mysteries, and after the seaside romps of the last outing, this one is back to the classic structure: a country house, a body and an array of possible suspects.

Angela Marchmont herself is a pretty low-key amateur detective, who sometimes seems to uncover information or deduce things more by chance than skill. She’s not a flamboyant Poirot type, but she also doesn’t seem as astute as Miss Marple. What she does have, however, is a great deal of curiosity, and a willingness to go out to start rooting round for evidence herself, although she thinks of it as helping the police.

If she herself is a little bland, she is surrounded by an array of much more colourful characters. I like her American chauffeur, William, and also Freddy, the aristocratic newspaper man. I hope we’ll see more of Freddy, and his outrageous sidekick, Gertie McAloon. This book also features some unusual characters for a book set in the twenties – members of a black jazz band, and the Chinese owners of a nightclub. This was a fun look at a slightly seedy side of twenties life.

The plot unfolds in the expected way, with enough clues and red herrings to satisfy, and there was a great deal of subtlety in the final revelations. I guessed most of it, but it doesn’t really matter with this kind of book. Those who don’t work it out can be amazed by the author’s cleverness, and those who do can be amazed at their own. Another very enjoyable four stars.

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Fiction review: ‘Little Face’ by Sophie Hannah

November 13, 2015 Review 0

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This is one of those books that starts well, and then descends into some tortuous farce which requires a drastic level of improbability. Lacking a single likeable character, a realistic plot or convincing writing, I’m really struggling to find anything positive to say about it. I kept reading it to find out how it ended, so there’s that, I suppose.

The premise is intriguing. A mother leaves her two-week-old baby for the first time, taking a modest trip to a health club she’s joining, and having a drink. When she returns home, she insists that the baby isn’t hers, that somehow her own baby has been stolen and a different baby substituted. Her husband, who has been looking after the baby, disagrees. This immediately sets up the central conceit of the book: is Alice (the new mother) right? Is she mistaken, suffering from some delusion? Or is she lying?

Whatever the cause, Alice sets a chain of events in motion that involves the police and here we meet the two central characters of the book. Wait a moment, you might be thinking, isn’t this about Alice? You’d think so (I certainly did, especially since Alice’s story is told by Alice herself, in first person perspective), but no, the main characters are the two cops, Charlie and Simon. Charlie’s a woman, despite the name, and she has the hots for Simon. Simon is a genius, apparently. We know this is true because he says so himself. And Charlie must be pretty smart, too, because she has a first from Cambridge. It’s important that we’re told these things, because if we were judging solely on the basis of their actions, we’d have deduced that these two are actually morons.

As the story unfolds, and the two detectives struggle through the investigation, Simon goes off-message more times than a rogue politician (following his instincts, apparently) and is praised to the skies for it. Charlie, meanwhile, who appears to be following a plausible line of enquiry, is hauled over the coals and told to listen to Simon’s instincts. Because he’s a genius, apparently. Hmm.

The plot degenerates after that into ridiculous levels of implausibility, which involves some quite distressing episodes of what I can only describe as torture. And the big reveals at the end? Meh to one and NO WAY to the other. All I can say is: the author cheated. I finished the thing, so two stars. Usually, when I dislike a book, I suggest the sort of reader it might be better suited for, but in this case I really can’t find any reason to recommend this. Avoid.

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Fantasy review: ‘The Death of Dulgath’ by Michael J Sullivan

November 8, 2015 Review 0

Yippee! A new Royce and Hadrian story! I was lucky enough to get this before the official release by contributing to the Kickstarter campaign. For fans of the boys, this is the third story in the Riyria Chronicles series, which was written after the Riyria Revelations trilogy, but precedes it in the story’s timeline. It’s possible to read either first, but personally I think it makes more sense to read the trilogy first, and then move on to the prequels.

The plot is straightforward: the new Countess of Dulgath has been the subject of several assassination attempts. Royce and Hadrian are called in as consultants to advise her courtiers on likely methods of future attempts and suggest ways to circumvent them. And you don’t have to be as cynical as Royce to smell a rat, and suspect that they haven’t been summoned to the far end of the continent just for their advice.

The plot unfolds in the usual devious way, with innumerable twists and turns. Some were predictable and some took me by surprise, but either is fine. Like a murder mystery, working it out ahead of time makes the reader feels smugly clever, but failing that, one can admire the author’s cleverness instead.

But the plot isn’t as compelling here as the characters. Sherwood the painter, Scarlett the entertainer at the inn and, most of all, the quiet centre of the story, the Countess herself, are all deeply intriguing, as well as the familar duo of Royce and Hadrian. Their double act is well-known now, but somehow it never gets old – Hadrian the innocent who sees good in everyone, and Royce his darker counterpart, the cynic who sees nothing but selfishness and greed. And who’s to say which of them is wrong?

I loved every minute of this book. The humour, the camaraderie, the unexpected moments of fun or sadness, the how-will-they-get-out-of-this twistiness, and an ending that was both inevitable, yet also had a surprise hidden away. Very neat. Five stars. Mr Sullivan can write as many of these as he wishes.

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Fantasy review: ‘Dragon’s Bride’ by H L Burke

November 7, 2015 Review 0

It’s always a sad moment, reaching the end of a series and waving farewell to favourite characters. Will the author produce a final triumphant flourish, or will it fall a bit flat? Will obstacles be swept aside too easily, or will everything make perfect sense? Fortunately, the author got pretty much everything right in this. Ewan and Shannon’s story was tied up in a very satisfactory way, bad guys got their comeuppance, good guys got their reward and even the time travel worked out very neatly.

Let’s start with Ewan and Shannon. I was always very pleased that Ewan embraced his dragon-ness, and Shannon was cool with it, too, even as they both had good reasons for wanting him to be human again. It seemed likely to me that the end of the story would have to be bittersweet, with one or both of them having to make a sacrifice. But the author cleverly produced an ending that satisfied on every level. I can’t say more than that without giving things away, but I loved the final resolution. Perfect.

The sub-plots were less interesting to me. Ryan’s chase round to find his son felt suspiciously like filler, Shannon’s pregnancy issues likewise, and Acacia and Will seemed to be there solely as plot devices. The resolution of Riley, in particular, felt very contrived, and the rebellion never really rose to the occasion. In the end, I’d have traded most of this for more time with Ewan and Martin.

It’s tricky to do time travel plots without getting tied in knots or leaving plot holes big enough for a dragon to fly through. There were some nice twists here that took me by surprise, but it all fell into place very logically. The fae were well-drawn, but I did find their magical powers a bit arm-wavingly convenient at times. How shall we get out of this particularly desperate mess? Oh, look, here’s someone with the power to just poof! make it all go away.

In the end, though, this story was all about Ewan and Shannon, and the resolution of it was note perfect, although the sub-plot niggles keep it to four stars.

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Fantasy review: ‘City of Mages’ by Kyra Halland

November 6, 2015 Review 0

This is the fifth, and penultimate, part of the Daughter of the Wildings series of western fantasies, and this is the moment I’ve been looking forward to from the start. Finally, we get to leave the Wildings behind temporarily and visit Granadaia, the home of rogue mage Silas, and the place where mages are the wealthy aristocrats, and those without magic (Plains) are not much more than slaves.

At the end of the fourth book, To The Gap, Silas had been shot and captured by mage hunters, to be taken back to Granadaia. It’s all down to his wife Lainie, Wildings-born and a mage with both Granadaian and Wildings abilities, to ride to the rescue. Although I missed Silas, it was wonderful to watch Lainie rise to the occasion and work out ways to find her man and then rescue him, almost single-handed.

The opening of the book feels a little bit like a rehash of the cattle-drive in To The Gap, although this time there are Granadaian mages alongside the hands, and Lainie has to steer a careful course between the Wildings folk, who are suspicious of all mages, and the Granadaian folk, who are suspicious of untrained mages. However, luck falls her way, seemingly.

Granadaia is fascinatingly different from the Wildings. Some aspects felt a little bit modern, but it felt believably different from the western-style Wildings – instead of the desert, with its capricious flash-floods, Granadaia is a lush, green place, all its land given over to intensive agriculture (which is why they need the Wildings cattle), tall cities and the estates of the mages, of course. I have to say, I found it fascinating to see a society where mages are the ruling class, not just tools to be used and controlled by those in power, but actually wielding all the power themselves. And Silas’s family is very much part of that controlling power. This was very much a ‘meet the relatives’ story, and all the more fun for that reason!

The ending is suitably nail-biting, and if I didn’t find the final magely shootout totally convincing (I know Lainie’s powerful now, but even so…), it was still hugely enjoyable. This wasn’t quite the pleasantly adventurous romp of some of the previous books. Seeing Silas in captivity was gut-wrenching, and the author used the symbolism of Silas’s hat to remind the reader constantly of what was at stake. And OMG, I would never have thought the single word ‘Friend’ would reduce me to tears. Another skillfully written chapter in the series, which neatly resolves one problem while setting the scene for (hopefully) an even bigger showdown in the final book. I can’t recommend this series enough! Five stars.

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Mystery review: ‘Landfall’ by Dawn Lee McKenna

October 16, 2015 Review 0

Another dramatic story in the Forgotten Coast series. This time there’s a hurricane on the horizon, and the Florida coastline is vulnerable. I’m going to be honest, I’m not usually a big fan of the kind of high-octane thrill-ride expected of this kind of premise. It tends to be too frenetic for my taste. I like to have time to smell the roses along the way, so to speak, which is probably why my preferred genre is epic fantasy.

I needn’t have worried, though. Yes, there’s a lot of dramatic action, and the hurricane is no small part of that, but the author’s main focus has alway been firmly fixed on the characters and their wonderful interactions. So in the midst of all the drama, there’s also time for the characters to find out about each other, and for the reader to find out more about them, too. These are people with lots of secrets. And there’s plenty of humour too. For anyone who’s a fan of Stoopid the rooster or Coco the dog, you’ll be pleased to know that they have starring roles in this book. Four stars.

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Fantasy review: ‘The Fuller’s Apprentice’ by Angela Holder

September 29, 2015 Review 1

I absolutely loved the author’s previous book, ‘White Blood’, so naturally I couldn’t resist this one. Unlike the previous one, it’s the first part of a trilogy, but there are similarities, too, in particular, an interesting magic system, closely allied to the religion of the country. Wizards can only use magic in association with an animal familiar, and only in certain limited ways: for healing, for making legal judgements by examining actual events of the past, and to move things (or prevent them moving). These are interesting restrictions, and, as with all fantasy, part of the enjoyment is seeing the multitude of different ways even a limited application of magic can be used.

The two main characters are Josiah, the titular fuller’s apprentice, a young man of reckless impulsiveness, and the rather serious journeyman wizard, Elkan. The two meet when Josiah is amusing himself by running backwards and forwards through the fulling machinery (a scene that reminded me somewhat of the chompers scene in Galaxy Quest!). When things go wrong, Josiah is saved by the quick-thinking wizard, who then offers him a job as his assistant when the Master Fuller wants to fire Josiah.

The two of them, together with Elkan’s familiar, Sar (a donkey), begin a slow amble through the scenery which goes on for chapter after chapter. There’s a great deal of detail here about how the magical healing process works, how the legal system works, and also the wizard’s role as a kind of priest (he officiates at a marriage at one point). We even get a description of waulking (a precursor to fulling as a way of preparing woven materials). This is not uninteresting, but it’s very, very slow, and action moments are few and far between. It’s very tempting for an author who’s worked out all the subtleties of her invented world to the umpteenth degree to squeeze all of it into the story, but it does make the pace glacial. The problem is compounded by dialogue of greetings, detailed explanations of medical conditions, and so forth, which could easily have been condensed or skipped altogether.

Apart from the magic, the world-building is nothing earth-shattering. The population is largely agricultural, with all adults assigned to craft guilds, and trained in one or other craft, even if, in practice, they might be doing a variety of other tasks. This leads rather interestingly to the idea that children are named for their parents’ craft and their own, rather than taking a family name. Thus, Elkan is known as Elkan Farmerkin Wizard. Machinery is limited to simple mechanical devices (like the fulling mill), sailing ships, and the like.

The plot – well, there really isn’t much of a plot. Elkan and Josiah move about healing, judging and conducting religious ceremonies. There’s a sub-plot with bandits, who wander into the story from time to time causing trouble, but mainly the focus is on a variety of challenges for Elkan and his companion-in-magic, Sar the donkey. This makes the story very choppy and episodic. Every few chapters, there’s a new town or village, a new medical condition described in disconcertingly modern terms, followed by a cure, or a long discussion about why it can’t be done.

Of the characters, the conflicted and quite complex Elkan is the most interesting. At first he seems rather dull, happy in his work and disapproving of Josiah’s impulsiveness. But later, as we learn more about him, he becomes a little more nuanced. Josiah does some pretty stupid things, but he does learn to see things in less black and white terms. I’d have liked to know more about Sar the donkey, but perhaps that will come in future books. The other characters are mostly too numerous to be more than hastily-drawn sketches. Some effort is made to give the bandits some depth, but ultimately all these minor characters are either good guys or bad guys. The only character whose behaviour stretched my credulity was Meira. Her actions felt like plot-drivers, rather than something which would arise naturally. But it was a minor point.

But as the book goes on, the happy healer and fixer aspect is increasingly mired in difficult choices, and this is where the book really shines. It’s impossible not to share the grief when people die, despite the wizard’s best endeavours. How do you explain to simple folk that some things just can’t be fixed, even with magic? And when there’s a disaster, with many people needing help, how do you choose? And is it possible to give so much yet ask for nothing in return, not even personal happiness? All these questions and more are addressed by the end of the book, as well as the important one: the issue of free will. And although the characters don’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary, they still got under my skin so that I cared very much what happened to them.

The ending gave me a complete side-swipe. That was really NOT how I saw this going. But it all followed completely logically from the developments up to that point – one of those oh-of-course moments, not wait-what? And then everything is nicely set up for book 2.

A very readable book, well written and nicely thought out. It was terribly slow moving, and I often found myself muttering: yes, yes, but get on with it. Even so, I found myself thinking about aspects of the story while I was doing other things, and always picked it up again with pleasure. That’s the sign of a good book. I shall certainly be watching out for the next in the series. Recommended for the characters, the setting and the interesting magic system, rather than action. Four stars.

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